With the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme gathering pace, Business Leader wanted to find out more about the rights staff and employers have when implemeting policies. To do this we spoke to Sue Tumelty – founder of The HR Dept.
Under the Equality Act, all employees have certain protected rights under religion or philosophical beliefs, and they may be justified in claiming protection under these laws.
However at the same time, company owners have every right to make ‘reasonable requests’ to minimise risks to other employees in their business.
Sue Tumelty says that companies who fail to approach the issue with sensitivity and an eye on the relevant legislation face opposing risks of claims of discrimination on one hand and potentially losing staff on the other.
She explains: “What on the face of it may seem a reasonable health and safety precaution in embracing the vaccine is full of nuance,” she said. “And there is no case law to which to refer, so businesses should be extremely careful.
“At the moment, most employers are simply thinking about when they can get their employees vaccinated. That’s a simple enough question to answer, given the Government’s timeline of aiming for all adults having a vaccine by the autumn.
“From there, though, the questions are not quite so straightforward. Employers should be considering whether they can ask that employees get vaccinated and what their options are if anyone refuses.
“Insisting on employee vaccinations really depends on whether the request is reasonable or not. For example, there’s an obvious difference between asking a care home worker to get vaccinated, compared to someone who works by themselves remotely, for instance.
“Doing any more than asking, which is best done by a non-contractual policy which outlines the benefits of vaccination and why you are recommending it, exposes you to a number of risks.
“The challenges posed by employment law are significant. One of the protected characteristics of the Equality Act is religion or philosophical belief. A person who does not believe in vaccinations or a person whose religion bans the use of certain substances found in the vaccine may claim protection under this.
“In December the Vatican has said it is acceptable for Catholics to have the vaccine and other religious leaders have since followed suit. However, some other faiths may not accept it. Those who are pregnant or suffer from severe allergies would likely be prevented from having the vaccination on medical grounds. So it is a complex area.”
“That being said, if a company has carried out a risk assessment and the request is a reasonable way of minimising the risk, you could potentially dismiss if anyone refused to help mitigate risk. You would, however, have to ensure a dismissal process was followed properly – and taken on its own merits.”